In a summer movie season fraught with brooding, self-serious and overlong CGI-gasms, a film as stupidly fun as “Nerve” is something to applaud.
The 96-minute flick – about a social media game turned deadly – hums along at a breakneck speed, mostly sidestepping preachy warnings about the perils of our screen-addled culture. Up until its heavy handed ending, “Nerve” uses its titular app not to lecture millennials, but to tell a story of teenage rebellion in the digital age.
The pitch of this augmented reality game, as described by one of the characters, is simple: “Truth or dare – without the truth.” You can sign up as a watcher or a player, either hiding behind a screen in the digital audience or performing. Watchers set the cash prize and players have the chance to bring it home. Oddly enough, it feels no sillier than capturing Pokemon with your iPhone.
Vee (Emma Roberts, formerly of Nickelodeon fame) signs on as a player in a fit of anger and dwindling self-confidence. Her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), the brazen cheerleader who gets all the guys, has emerged as a bonafide star with a growing number of watchers. Wanting to prove she’s not living in her shadow, Vee accepts a few challenges and sheds her nerdy girl mystique.
When she’s dared to kiss a stranger for $100, the watchers decide to pair the two up. So she and Ian (Dave Franco) ride into the city on his black motorcycle, her arms wrapped snug around his torso. Together, the two have an entertaining mini-adventure – navigating the city blindfolded, stripping down to their underwear, attending a boozy house party with pulsing electronic music. But there’s a lot they don’t know.
As the pair continue into the night, the narrative shifts into darker territory. Watchers push for more illegal and dangerous dares, and it becomes harder for Vee to escape the game she started playing on a lark. She and her tech-savvy friend, Tommy (Miles Hazier), have no option but to try to take down the game from the dark corners of the Internet.
“Nerve” stumbles when it takes a stab at social commentary in its latter-half. It’s not that there aren’t important points here to be made about the veil of anonymity that so often encourages criminals, as well as how it’s easier to do something wrong in a faceless crowd. It just never feels earned, like it belonged in another more dramatic movie.
Additionally, screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, whose biggest previous gig was penning episodes of “American Horror Story,” doesn’t quite reach the full potential of her premise. Plenty of the dares are edge-of-your-seat stuff – including a dizzying sequence atop a crane – but you can’t help but feel there were more opportunities out there. Many involve climbing something tall or exposing oneself.
The film’s saving grace is its undercurrent of cool, provided by the reliable directing team of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. The pair, who helmed the 2010 surprise-hit faux-documentary “Catfish,” are experts at nailing a particular style. Here, they swap out the shaky handheld cam for something closer to the art-house aesthetic of director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”). Schulman and Joost’s film is a neon-drenched vision, filled with catchy music, close camera angles and attractive 20-somethings posing as high schoolers.
If you approach it as a fun excursion and nothing more, you’ll likely have a good time. That’s how more summer fare oughta be.